Are these determined from historical play? For example, when the English was first played with 1. c4, why was the English in this case determined to just be 1. c4 and anything afterwards is considered a variation?

2 Answers 2


The original distinction was mainly so that chess players have a common vocabulary (for teaching, discussing, kibbitzing) there is the concept of a "main line." Other reasonable continuations are said to be variations. This helped the teachers and the players to learn the opening lines.

Yes, history did play a role in what was considered the main line, and which options were variations. Very often, variations would be given the name of the GM who first played it as a novelty, or the one who plays it very commonly to good results. (Remember, this was in the days when most people learned about games printed chess magazines that showed up several weeks after a game was played.)

These days, thanks to very powerful chess engines and massive databases, the mainline is arguably simply the line that is the most frequent continuation (played by those with high ELOs.)

It is also important to remember that as more games are added to the database, the mainline tends to shift to other moves, especially as refutations are discovered by the opponents.

Hope that helps.


There really isn't any regularity to the names of openings, there's never been any system behind it, it's always been very informal and the names sort of grew over the centuries. Almost every name has its own distinct history behind it.

1.c4 probably wasn't called the English right away, or everywhere. I don't know the actual story behind this one, but I guess that some time in the 19th century there were a few English players who were known for using it and after it got referred to as "that opening of those English players" it got the nickname "English opening", and it happened to stick.

Openings like 1.e4 that everybody played never got a nickname.

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